The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Republican Party needs union workers

A sign planted in a Birmingham neighborhood encourages workers to vote to unionize the nearby Amazon Fulfillment Center in Bessemer, Ala. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
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Amazon’s victory over attempts to unionize its Bessemer, Ala., warehouse surely gladdens the hearts of many anti-union Republicans. But a party that wants to be representative of America’s working class must have a more constructive reaction. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Post.)

Attitudes toward unions have been sharply partisan for decades. Labor law since the New Deal has forced employers to negotiate with any union that successfully wins a vote among a group of employees. Republicans backed employers in this struggle, while Democrats backed unions. That legacy remains with us to this day: Polls generally show that conservative Republicans have sharply negative views of unions, while progressive Democrats view them positively.

This divide initially resulted in a large class divide between the two parties. Republicans generally found support among college-educated (and, therefore, predominantly White) Americans, while Democrats appealed to those without degrees. But that divide narrowed after President Ronald Reagan brought many working-class former Democrats into the GOP — and it narrowed even further as many college-educated Whites started to vote Democratic in the 1990s and 2000s. By 2012, the sharply Democratic tilt among the growing number of voters with postgraduate degrees offset the narrow GOP advantage among those with only a bachelor’s degree. The result was President Barack Obama’s victory over Mitt Romney among both college-educated and non-college-educated voters.

Everyone knows what has happened since. Donald Trump attracted millions of former Democratic working-class voters, both White and — in 2020 — non-White. College-educated Whites, meanwhile, moved sharply into the Democratic camp. The comparison with 2012 is stunning. Even though the overall popular vote totals were nearly identical, with Obama and Biden winning by 51 percent-to-47 percent margins over their GOP opponents, the composition of each side’s coalitions were very different. Trump carried voters without a college degree by a 50 percent-to-48 percent margin, while Biden swept to a 55 percent-to-43 percentvictory among the college-educated (compared to 50 percent-to-48 percent for Obama in 2012).

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This reversal means the GOP has to think more seriously about the economic needs of working-class voters as those voters perceive them. If these people were convinced that supply-side, employer-focused economics worked in their interest, they would have been voting Republican for decades. The fact that it took Trump’s bombastic embrace of immigration limitation and opposition to untrammeled free trade to bring them into the Republican fold shows that the party needs something more than the same old messages to maintain — and grow — its coalition. And that means thinking seriously about unions.

Unions exist to solve problems. People only join them when they think they aren’t getting what they deserve from their employer, whether it is higher wages or benefits, greater job security or better working conditions. Take away that feeling of injustice, and people won’t join unions. Smart employers used to know this and gave their employees better wages and benefits packages than perhaps they needed to offer. My father’s old company, Hewlett-Packard, famously had a “no layoff” policy that meant business downturns were shared by all rather than by shedding a few. A Republican policy toward the working-class voters’ fears could push business to re-adopt these wiser policies in place of the efficient but ruthless “shareholder capitalism” model that has come to be the norm.

Problems also exist in context. The heyday of American unionization, the 1950s and 1960s, was an era with much greater economic restrictions than are in place today. Immigration to the United States was very limited until 1965, and business could not readily offshore production to nations and reimport the goods cheaply. Today’s liberal global economic regime means that employees always have to consider whether their employer can replace them if they ask for too much, either through shifting production elsewhere or by making more use of immigrant labor. They may not find union bargaining to be a plausible response to problems such as these, but that doesn’t mean they want the problems to go unaddressed.

This gives reform-minded Republicans a huge opening to meet the real needs of workers without embracing union bosses. They can push for tighter labor markets at home by eliminating illegal immigration and restricting legal immigration. They can change the incentives that push corporations to invest in other countries’ labor forces, which will inevitably mean tariffs or higher taxes on profits from goods designed here but produced elsewhere. They can redesign the safety net to subsidize people who move for job opportunities and adopt a mild industrial policy to push economic development toward depressed regions with skilled workers. They can even embrace innovative alternatives to traditional unions of the sort that American Compass’s Oren Cass has promoted.

Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party rested on the idea that labor and capital were allies, not enemies. Today’s Republican Party can resist the challenge from traditional unions and solve its own political challenge if it rediscovers this old, venerable ideal.

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Read more:

Katrina vanden Heuvel: Unions have endured body blows for far too long. But the tide is turning.

Kate Crawford: Amazon’s union vote could be a harbinger for the future of work

Henry Olsen: Corporate America is suffering from Bloombergism

Henry Olsen: Democrats’ pro-union bill would only hurt American workers

Megan McArdle: Affluent professionals and unions: Can this marriage last?